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Germans Are Talking Turkey

The European Union is in no rush to expand into Anatolia.

12:00 AM, Aug 2, 2006 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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TRANSATLANTIC RELATIONS are plagued by conceptual differences, the role of American power perhaps foremost among them. Lately, though, the role Turkey might play in an expanded European Union has become a point of some contention. The American foreign policy community has long viewed Turkey from a geostrategic perspective, whereas their Europeans counterparts tend to view Turkey from a cultural and socioeconomic prospective. And while the rise of the European Union and the fall of the Soviet empire have drastically altered the face of Europe, a consensus on the role of Turkey remains elusive. In Washington's eyes, Turkey has transformed from a Cold War bulwark against Soviet aggression into a critical "bridge" linking the industrialized Christian West to the pre-industrial Muslim East. Instead of theoretical suppositions, Europeans envision nearby Turkey as their version of Mexico--full of promise, yet mixed with concerns about culture, immigration, security and aid.

These variances were reflected during a recent visit I took to Germany and Brussels. While bilateral relations have markedly improved since Angela Merkel became Germany's chancellor in late 2005, differences still remain. Discussion of Turkey struck a particularly discordant tone--at a conference in Munich focusing on German-American ties, a participant declared that "we have to honestly discuss with our American friends whether allowing Turkey into the EU will make that organization into a very arbitrary body."

Germany's EU sentiments are especially telling as to how Turkey's candidacy bodes. Over 2.5 million Turks currently live in Germany (the largest such community in Europe), and surveys consistently reflect that almost two thirds of Germans oppose Turkey being an EU member. Given that Germany possesses the largest number of deputies within the European Parliament, it's important to understand what's being conveyed.

Germany's Turkish connection began in the 1960's when "guest workers" were recruited to do labor disparaged by others. The first wave of immigrants mainly came from urban, secular environments (a smaller proportion came to study), but latter arrivals were overwhelmingly from the countryside, bringing along their traditional mores. Outnumbering their better-educated predecessors, the second group didn't integrate into German society, thereby causing a serious cultural disconnect. The simultaneous rise of fundamentalist Islam aggravated matters further.

Due to its temporary rationale, the guest worker program failed to consider any long-term consequences. Many Turkish laborers never returned to their poverty-stricken homeland, yet they continued to reject European norms. Their children bear the consequences; 60 percent of the guest worker's offspring leave school without any certificate, creating what one Turkish community activist termed a "lumpenproletariat." Falling between societal cracks, they are prime fodder for Islamic fundamentalism and its emphasis on family honor, especially female chastity. Teenaged Turkish girls arrive by the score each year for arranged marriages without speaking a word of German, essentially consigned to lives of domestic servitude with little outside interaction. Even more disconcerting is the rise in "honor killings"--fifty five during the past six years in Germany alone--that usually occur when a woman breaks family constraints to adopt a European lifestyle.

Many Germans fear that if Turkey becomes a full EU member such killing will become even more prevalent as borderless, unregulated migration from Central Anatolia to Mitteleuropa further heightens tensions. Underscoring such sentiment, one German official likened Turkey to "Mexico [but] with Sharia".

The other European misgiving is economic. Turkey possesses a low GDP when compared to the European Union, and will therefore need much fiscal propping in order to achieve economic parity. This means large-scale subsidization, which bothers many Europeans. Considering that ten new members joined the EU in 2004, primarily from former Communist and lesser developed Eastern Europe, Brussels' support mechanisms are stretched very thin already.

Germany is the largest contributor to the EU till, currently providing 25 percent on an annual basis (once the newly admitted members are structurally in sync with Union guidelines, Berlin's donation will decrease a few points). The growing consensus among Germans and their fellow patrons is that integrating Turkey after Eastern Europe will be an impossible task.

Turkey's sheer demographic size is enough to give pause across the Continent. At 70.4 million, its current population is far larger than prior EU supplicants, and would give the new member inordinate influence over the organization. By 2015, when Turkey is projected to be ready for full membership, its citizenry will have grown by another ten million, matching Germany itself in sheer size.

Similarities end there, however, especially when Europe's ageing population and near-zero birthrate are taken into account. Increasing attention will be paid within EU communities to health care costs and associated concerns, which inevitably will be at odds with the costly aim of upgrading a new member's infrastructure. It is one thing for the EU to numerically reckon with absorbing thirty million Romanians and Bulgarians (Brussels next and probably last candidates for awhile), quite another when the applicant is two and a half times larger and possesses a starkly different cultural background.

There's a growing consensus within Europe to offer Turkey an alternative arrangement--something short of full membership. Chancellor Merkel proposes that Turkey be given an associative or "privileged partnership" focusing on closer commercial and economic ties. ("We can offer a privileged partnership versus an underprivileged membership", stated one German government advisor.) How this differs from the customs union that Turkey and the EU signed a decade ago is unclear. What does seem apparent is Europe's desire to consolidate its cultural identity and geographic borders.

Turkish officials assert that they will accept nothing less than full membership. Turkey also threatens that, if rejected, it will establish closer relations with Iran and Russia. While this appears to reflect little more than frustration, such words should not be taken lightly. American diplomacy needs to change its outlook towards Turkey and Europe, ideally recognizing the concurrent aspirations and limitations. The United States must play the role of an honest broker otherwise the envisioned "bridge" will lead to nowhere but further division and alienation.

Gerald Robbins is an Associate Scholar specializing in Turkish and Caspian Affairs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.